Pearls are one of the most beautiful gemstones in the world. Beyond their shimmering beauty, they also have a fascinating history in countless regions throughout the world. From religious texts to mythological stories, pearls have been culturally significant for centuries. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, valued pearls so much that deceased Egyptians were often buried with them as a sign of reverence.
However, the pearl trade has gone through some significant changes throughout history. From the most ancient pearl ever discovered to the classic story of Cleopatra’s most expensive dinner in history, pearls have played a significant role in many cultures. But when was the most ancient pearl discovered, and what did they do with it? How did different countries worldwide value the pearl in their own cultures? And finally, how did pearls go from being reserved for the rich and famous to being affordable for so many? A peek at the cultural history of the pearl will tell us more.
The Chinese are said to have been the first to use pearls as exalted gifts to elites, which has been documented as early as 2300 BC! A Chinese hair ornament from the 1875-1908 AD Guangxu dynasty. (Auckland Museum / CC BY 4.0 )
Pearls: The Rounder, The Better
It is difficult to determine a starting point for the discovery and use of pearls. Though we do not have a record of the initial discovery of pearls, it can be assumed that they were discovered somewhat quickly by early humans seeking a quick meal by the shore. As time went on, news of these shimmering gems traveled far and wide, soon becoming a status symbol in many regions of the globe. It is suggested by some gemologists, such as Frederick Kunz, that this discovery initially happened somewhere around the Persian Gulf or maybe on the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka .
The earliest record of pearls being used culturally can be traced back to around 2300 BC, when pearls were often presented to Chinese royalty as special gifts. To present a pearl would have shown great respect for rulers at that time, as they were rare and reserved for only the richest and most important of individuals because they represented purity in their wearer. The rounder the pearl, the more valuable the gift.
It is also known that Ancient Egyptians used mother-of-pearl frequently in decorative pots and jewelry. However, they did not use pearls themselves until much later. It is speculated that the later use of pearls was a result of the Persian conquest in the 5th century BC.
Outside of these records, the earliest pearl jewelry ever discovered came from the site of ancient Susa in Iran 1901. Archaeologists discovered the “Susa Pearls,” the world’s oldest pearl necklace, in the bronze sarcophagus of a Persian princess. Historians estimate that the necklace is from approximately 420 BC. Bound with bronze wire, the necklace contains 216 pearls in total across three rows, making it a significant cultural piece. Now, the necklace has been preserved and can be seen in the Louvre.
The Susa Pearls – the oldest pearl jewelry known to exist thought to be from 420 BC. (Kari / Kari Pearls )
From Rome to Egypt
During the Roman Empire, the Ancient Romans became known for their love of pearls and often used pearls to visually separate those of higher status within Roman society. Pearls indicated that an individual came from great wealth or other high status, which clearly set them apart from the rest of the public. Not only this, but pearls themselves were worth more than most other gems. Suetonius, a Roman historian, recorded that Roman general Vitellius once financed his entire military simply by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings!
Rich Roman women would use their pearls to upholster expensive furniture and bedazzle their fancy gowns. The more pearls you had on your gown, the richer and more esteemed of a woman you were. Caligula, Roman emperor between 37-41 AD, once gave his horse a pearl necklace after appointing it as an official consul.
A 3rd-century AD gold Roman bracelet set with pearls, emeralds and sapphires, said to be from Tunis, on display at the British Museum. (Vassil / CC0)
Egypt also had a great love for pearls. Many discovered tombs contained pearls, which would have been a sign of respect for the deceased. Tombs with more pearls have been determined to have belonged to individuals of greater wealth or fame.
One of the most famous uses of pearls in history comes from the story of Cleopatra’s famous banquet with Mark Antony . Cleopatra wanted to prove that Egypt had levels of wealth comparable to Rome, so she invited Antony to “the most expensive dinner in history.” Cleopatra arrived at the dinner and sat down at an empty plate with a goblet of acidic wine. A confused, and later astonished, Antony watched as she removed one of her pearl earrings, dissolved it in the wine, and drank it in its entirety. Antony refused to eat his part of the dinner, which was to be the other earring. Gemologists estimate that the earrings were worth somewhere around 10 million dollars (9.8 million euros) in today’s market.
A fascination with pearls can also be seen in Arabic culture. The Koran in particular describes pearls with particular reverence, as Paradise is described to be filled with stones including pearls and jacinths. The description even says the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds, and all those who are admitted to paradise receive a tent and crown made of pearls. Maidens that one receives in paradise are also described as “hidden pearls.”
North and Central America also became a new source for stunning pearls. A copy of an Austro-Hungarian Empire pendant featuring a double-tailed mermaid made from pink tourmaline, emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and baroque pearls (from the Gulf of California or Tahiti). The original is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (Vassil / CC0)
The Land of Pearls
Pearls weren’t only reserved for those throughout Europe and Asia. North America has its own history of pearls that became clear upon Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The Spanish took full advantage of this “discovered” land, forcing slaves to dive into deep waters throughout Central America for pearls. English colonizers also found Native Americans wearing pearls, which they had discovered in river basins around modern-day Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee. All of these pearls were either stolen or brutally sourced and exported back to Europe, giving it the temporary nickname “Land of Pearls.”
Over time, North America became known as an overseas pearl market. The largest, roundest freshwater pearls discovered throughout the continent were often sold to the richest and most royal individuals in Europe. Colonizers also used mollusks to produce mother-of-pearl buttons, which were also sold overseas and shipped in the billions. This market kept running until World War II, when plastic became the new primary material for buttons.
Freshwater pearls weren’t the only pearls coming from the Americas. In the Gulf of California black saltwater pearls were being found and exported to Spain along with the white freshwater ones found up north. These fascinating black pearls were competitors with Tahitian black pearls, which were the most famous black pearls overseas.
Beyond North America, other countries started sourcing their own pearls to enter the market in Spain. Saltwater pearl procurers tried to compete with North America’s freshwater pearls by bringing forth the smoothest, roundest, and most shimmery of gems. With such a surplus of pearls, Spain quickly had to find buyers for their high stock. Luckily, communities across Europe and Asia were ready and willing to purchase these pearls, regardless of the high cost.
Unfortunately for Spain, this wealth didn’t last long. Because of drastic overfishing in North and Central America, mollusk populations shrank drastically. Pearls became much more difficult to come by since most of the mollusks had already been harvested throughout the Americas’ many bodies of water. Plus, industrialization brought greater amounts of pollution to the Americas, which prevented some species of mollusks from remultiplying. Pearls went back to being reserved for the most rich and important in society, but not for long. A solution came from Japan in the late 19th century.
These are all classified as pearls, and they are all different! (MASAYUKI KATO / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
No Longer Hidden: Pearls Today
Though the short supply of pearls in the last few centuries was a major challenge for Spain and surrounding countries, a solution was found in the development of pearl cultivation. Pearl cultivation is the manual production of pearls from human intervention. The process was invented in Japan in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto, who stimulated an oyster to create a pearl using an irritant.
These pearls are called “cultured pearls,” and are created manually with the insertion of a nucleus (pearl core) into an oyster or mollusk. The organism is then left to create the pearl on its own around that core, which produces a pearl. Mikimoto and Japanese biologists tried a number of different nuclei including silver, gold, lead, and wood, but Mikimoto found the most effective to be small pieces of US mussel shells. Mussel shells are now the most common nuclei for cultured pearls. Pearl farming itself is now common in many countries throughout the world including India, Japan, and China, which is now the world’s largest producer of freshwater pearls.
Most pearls in the jewelry trade today are cultured pearls, which just means they’re created with human assistance. Natural pearls, or pearls produced naturally in bodies of water without human intervention, are much rarer to come by, which makes them significantly more expensive.
Because of Mikimoto’s invention of pearl farming, finding pearl jewelry is now easy. At most local jewelers, you can find pearl jewelry at reasonable prices. Some smaller or more common pearls are even available cheaply at ordinary clothing stores. An example of this would be freshwater pearls, which can often be found for as affordable as $20 for a pair of earrings. Considering the expense and elite-only access to pearls only a few centuries ago, the recent mass availability of affordable pearls can be considered the most drastic shift in the pearl trade in history.
Though these pearls are more easily come by than a few centuries ago, they’re not any less special. There’s a certain beauty in the iridescence of a pearl that you just don’t see in other gemstones. When you really look at their shimmer, it’s really no wonder they were cherished so highly throughout history.
Top image: Natural pearls inside an oyster shell were a surprise in the ancient food sources of peoples living on the coast in the Persian Gulf and southern India and before long they were world famous elite gemstones. Source: valeriy555 / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh